| Sid Astbury |
Beamish, England (dpa) – Retired bank manager Martin Coombes can remember how he wore short pants when shopping for his mother at the Co-op grocery in the coal-mining town of Annfield Plain in the north-east of England.
Weighed on brass scales, groceries were packed in paper bags. Prices were rung up on a mechanical till.
Coombes is looking at the same shop now, but it is no longer in Annfield Plain. It was taken apart and moved to Beamish Museum in the 1970s to join other exhibits in a replica of a 1900s town.
Today, Coombes is across the street at the printers, showing a class of schoolchildren how newspapers, posters and cards were printed.
He is one of 280 staff at Beamish, a site that recreates England’s past, looking after around 630,000 visitors a year.
Beamish, an open-air museum a half-hour drive from Durham, has big plans to extend its exhibits to recreate the 1950s and 1980 as well.
It would also like to open a hotel for visitors that would give them a feel of what it was like to stay in an olden-days coaching inn.
“I never realised how interesting local history was until I really got immersed in it here,” Coombes said. “The only downside is being tired. On busy days you could be talking to 5,000 people.”
Something you learn at Beamish is that the past is never far away. That splendid brass cash register standing proud on the counter at the Co-op dates from the 1890s. It was made by a US company in Dayton, Ohio, that still exists under the name NCR Corp.
NCR describes itself as the global leader in consumer transaction technologies. Its point-of-sale terminals are in a shop near you.
Coombes, a banker for 32 years, has been temporarily assigned to the printing shop.
Like the others, he is shifted around Beamish to keep his patter fresh and his interest lively. He could be speaking as a printer today, he could be at the Co-op tomorrow, or dressed up as a mechanic and talking engines at the Beamish Motor & Cycle Works the day after.
Some days he is behind the counter at Barclays Bank talking about what used to be his own life.
“Everybody has at least three or four costumes,” museum spokeswoman Jacki Winstanley said. “Even those of us who work on computers have costumes. Usually if I’m out and about, I’m in costume. It’s something you do.”
When the gates open and the visitors arrive, that is the finish for modernity. Historical authenticity is the keynote.
Some workers go to great lengths to keep in period, right down to wearing spectacles that were made a long time ago, although the lenses are modern and adapted to their own eyesight.
The cue comes from management. If there is an electrical problem, an electrician wearing a period costume gets in a Model T Ford or another period vehicle to go out and fix the fault.
Staff are not actors. There are no scripts. They tell the story from the standpoint of the here and now.
“You get different questions from visitors,” Coombes said. “If you don’t know it, you go away and get the answer for next time. So you build up your knowledge that way as well.”
When Beamish opened 43 years ago, there were still people around who had lived in the early 1900s. Older visitors were taken back to their childhoods – coal fires, feather beds, the dreaded trip to the dentist and riding in trams and trains – and were delighted to share their memories with the younger visitors that arrived with them and with the Beamish staff.
By recreating life in the 1950s, the trip down memory lane is about to become shorter, with visitors dipping back into living memory.
Winstanley said: “You’re going to see things and say ‘Oh, my goodness, I had one of those and now it’s in a museum’.”
The quest for authenticity at Beamish is painstaking, even pernickety.
At the 1940s farm, with its crackling wireless radio and Women’s Land Army billets, there are old breeds of boars and poultry.
The farmer’s car is up on bricks. Because petrol was in short supply in the war years, private cars were often garaged for the duration and horses put back in harness to do the ploughing alongside tractor-drawn implements.
Authenticity has its price. The shops and houses are dimly lit. At Davy’s Fried Fish Shop, the service is slow because coal fuels the friers rather than gas or electricity.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself that most of Beamish is younger than you are. Only the mine, the farm and the manor house were there when plans for a living museum were drawn up in the 1970s.
Even the miners’ cottages, nestled near the pit head, were brought in from outside. Again, the watchword has been verisimilitude.
“We’ve built the miners’ cottages close to the pit head because in 1900 that’s what the mine owner did,” Winstanley said. “He wanted his workforce on the doorstep. So that’s what we’ve recreated.”